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The Japanese and Chinese responses to imperialism were different when Japan and China both faced the threat of European imperialism in the late 19th century. They both took separate paths when dealing with this threat, and only one of them proved to be successful. The decisions Japan made allowed it to become an imperial power, while China’s decisions led the country to collapse and fall into the hands of the imperialists.

At first, both Japan and China were very wary of the west and its technology and culture. The two countries had followed their own systems for centuries and they were not interested in change. China would only trade for silver, and Japan greatly restricted western imports. Japan quickly realised the need for change, however, while China continued this policy for many years.

The Matsushima was an example of Japanese naval superiority

Once the imperial powers had been present for a while, Japan and China started to shift their foreign affairs. Japan vowed to become industrial superior in order to protect itself from colonisation. They built factories, schools, and goods, and toured western countries to learn the ways of the west. China decided it would be best to adopt just a few western technologies, and further, most people simply pretended to strive towards this. Technological progress was not made in China. While the Japanese were busy building a great navy, the Chinese leader, Empress Cixi, felt funds would be better spent on a luxurious palace rather than the military, and secretly diverted military funds otherwise used for gunpowder and ammunitions.

As time progressed, the effects of Japanese and Chinese plans were strongly felt. Japan had built itself a booming economy and a powerful military. China had secluded itself from proper trade, and failed to fight off the British opium invasion, while at the same time made no forward advancement. A resource hungry Japan was easily able to overrun the Chinese in combat to capture prime territory (Korea). China buckled under the force of Europe and was divided into Spheres of influence. Japan was an independent power that had enough might to defeat even the large Russian Empire, while China was weak and had to rely on Europe for protection. By the time China realised its mistake, the outcome was already in the books, and Qing China was finished.

The results of these two separate policies were clear. Japan, who embraced westernisation, ended up as an imperial power, while the Chinese were reduced to poverty, illiteracy, and foreign control. Japan started open trade and industrialisation early and succeeded, while China got off to a late “reactive rather than proactive” start and failed and fuelled revolution.


  • John T E Cribb; Mary Beth Klee; John Holdren; (2004). The Human Odyssey: From Modern Times to Our Contemporary Era. Virginia: McLean Publishing Co. ISBN 1-60153-018-8


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